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Polls Close as Sri Lanka's Parliamentary Election Ends - 2004-04-02

Polls have closed in Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections, which many hope will bring an end to months of political uncertainty caused by a feud between the country's president and prime minister. But the ballot comes amid rising tensions in the east of the country.

Holding purple voter registration cards, millions of people turned out to cast their ballots in what appears to be a tight race for seats in Sri Lanka's 225-member parliament.

Although 24 political parties are vying for seats, the vote is largely a race between the party of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and that of her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

At stake is control not only over the government, but also over peace negotiations with the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group.

The rebels have been engaged in a two-decade long conflict with the government for greater rights for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. Ms. Kumaratunga charges that Mr. Wickremesinghe has endangered national security by giving the rebels too many concessions.

Both leaders say they want to end the conflict with the rebels. But at a polling station in Colombo, this voter says the two leaders' political feuding has made them lose sight of that goal.

"Whenever the ruling party takes steps towards peace, the opposition party is always opposing the process - it's party politics," the voter said.

This is Sri Lanka's third election is just four years, the last one taking place in December 2001. Ms. Kumaratunga called this latest ballot in February, after months of discussions failed to break the deadlock with the prime minister over how the peace process should continue.

The election marks the first time thousands of minority Tamil voters in the northern region of Jaffna have voted. The 2002 cease-fire agreement between government forces and the Tamil Tigers has allowed voters to travel safely in order to cast their ballots.

No matter who wins the majority of parliamentary seats and control of talks with the rebels, however, achieving peace recently became more complicated. Last month, the Tamil Tigers split into two factions, which are threatening to go to war against each other in the east of the country.

Election results are expected Saturday.